When is a story not just a story?

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I’m a huge podcast fan.

I’m such a podcast fan I travelled to the other side of the world to attend a festival dedicated to them. I love them because they’re such an intensely personal experience. I can disappear into a conversation with total strangers about a topic that I’m interested in that maybe none of my real world friends want to chat about and have that need fulfilled in the privacy of my own car, my bedroom, or through a set of headphones while walking down the street.

For the most part, my jam has been comedy podcasts – but I, like many others, went down the rabbit hole that was Serial in 2014, and I continued even further down the Adnan Syed path by listening to Undisclosed which was an in-depth legal analysis of this case (and if you loved Serial Season One, I can’t recommend it enough). Unlike a lot of people, I was really captivated by the story of Bowe Berdahl in Season Two of Serial, so I was quite excited when I heard that the team behind Serial were releasing a new podcast, specifically produced for binge-listening where all seven parts would be dropped at once. I am, of course, referring to S-Town, which has well and truly topped 10 million downloads at this point. I’m going to put the rest of this behind the cut for those who haven’t listened and don’t want to have any details revealed to them.

If you’re still reading – fair warning – I expect you’ve either already listened, or you don’t plan on listening and you don’t mind if you read about the contents of the story here. You might note I’m not using the world spoiler here, and there’s a reason for that which I’ll explain soon enough.

I started chapter one right away, and I was fascinated by what Brian Reed was doing with this show. But I never expected it to go the way it did. For those of you who’ll never listen, and are kindly humouring me by reading this, from the beginning of S-Town we’re introduced to John B. McLemore, a man who is many things, among them being an antique clock restorer, a semi-closeted homosexual man, a liberal, an eccentric, a man who lives in the same rural Alabama town he grew up in and cares for his elderly infirm mother. Oh, and he hates where he lives. He calls it Shittown (hence the S-town). He’s asked Brian Reed to come to Shittown to investigate a murder he heard a rumour about that he believes the son of a wealthy local man has gotten away with.

It became pretty apparent to me early on that all the world is a Shittown to John B. It’s his conversations with Brian and his hyper-fixation on issues such as fossil fuel shortage, climate change, economic collapse etc that made me think John B.’s hatred for his town extended beyond its limits.

A while John B. McLemore is presented to us as a man who is burdened with an overwhelming sense of negativity, he’s also an incredibly intriguing person and within the first two episodes, you can’t help but well, just take a liking to him, just as Brian Reed did. Which is why it’s such an awful turn of events to learn at the end of episode two that John B. has taken his own life. By drinking cyanide no less.

The narrative takes a turn at this point where it becomes clear that the murder that John B. asked Brian to come and investigate with him never happened, and the real story is about the life of John B. and what lead to his tragic suicide.

Looking at things from the point of view of Brian as a journalist, I can see that following through on the story of John B. McLemore as a person, his life and the events surrounding his death such as the feud between his friend Tyler and legal next of kin over his property, the treasure hunt for the gold that was maybe buried on his vast property and the history of who he was an extremely complex person would have been just about irresistible. But should Brian have resisted?

Let me say that I enjoyed listening to S-town immensely. But I was conflicted. Much of it did not feel right to me, especially around aspects of John B.’s sexually and his death.

The question of privacy came up a lot for me while listening to S-Town, and I wonder if it was on my mind, having recently finished another hugely popular podcast of this year, Missing Richard Simmons, which explored the fitness guru’s apparent complete disconnection from public life for the last two years.

Missing Richard Simmons received a great deal of critical backlash for its intrusive nature into the life of Richard Simmons and those close to him, all with the motive of wanting to reach him and make sure he was ok. Even though he’d stated on a number of occasions that he was perfectly fine, and really just wanted to be left in peace.

The major differences though I think between Missing Richard Simmons and S-Town is that the subjects are a celebrity and private citizen. Celebrities, rightly or wrongly, do give up a certain amount of privacy by virtue of being a celebrity. I don’t necessarily believe that’s ok, but I believe it to be true. And through Missing Richard Simmons we learned Richard was a person who willingly gave up quite a lot of himself to his adoring public who took it VERY hard when he chose to draw the final curtain.

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In S-Town, John B. McLemore is a private, although slightly kooky and fascinating citizen who made a connection with a journalist to investigate something outside of himself. He did not invite Brian Reed to investigate his suicide, he did not invite Brian Reed to investigate his sexuality, he did not invite Brian Reed to investigate his personal relationships, platonic or otherwise and he did not invite Brian Reed to share portions of his suicide note with millions of people.

I can’t even begin to consider the challenges that must be faced be an LGBTQI person in rural Alabama. S-Town certainly painted a fairly bleak picture of repressed homosexuality in the South, and certainly did not give the impression that it’s an especially safe place to be out.

Much of chapter six is dedicated to the discussion of John B.’s sexuality and his relationships, and whether or not he was ever able to experience a great love in his life. Part of this exploration meant Brian spoke to several men who had varying degrees of involvement in John B.’s life in a romantic sense. But the difficulty with this is that relationships are complicated – and they involve two people, and it’s terribly unfortunate that one of these two people involved is now dead and is not able to tell us how he viewed that relationship and its nuances. He’s also not in a position to give consent for his sexuality to be openly discussed in his absence.

Generally speaking, Reddit it NOT a place I care to spend a great deal of time, but I was really interested to read what the world was thinking about S-Town and John B. so I found myself in the subreddit more than once, and I ran across more than a few people who experienced similar feelings to what I’ve had about the podcast.

I listened to the final chapter while I did my grocery shopping. Mostly because grocery shopping is really boring, AND I was completely captivated by the story and was listening at every opportunity I had. For those of you who have listened, and are familiar with the contents of the final chapter – I’m talking about ‘Church’ here – I’d love to know how this made you feel at the end of the story. Because I know how it made me feel: Icky.
If you’ve not heard the podcast, I can’t bring myself to describe to you what ‘Church’ is, mostly because the two descriptions we received from John B. and from Tyler are just so vastly different I don’t feel I could give one that was really adequate – but if I had to choose a side of the fence to fall on here I think I’d come down on Tyler’s. I don’t think it would have been easy for him to be as honest as he was about what those sessions with John B. consisted of. This part of the story did make me feel differently about the relationship between the two of them because it made me feel like the power dynamic was very different than I had initially thought. But mostly it just made me feel a whole lot sadder for John B. than I already did.

But the more time I have had to consider it, the more I have decided that this is just the nature of biography – and what is the point of biography if you gloss over the details of somebody’s life – no matter how ugly or possibly disturbing they might appear?

S-Town was not investigative journalism because ultimately, it never managed to really turn up any answers on the mysteries it uncovered. I think it just set out to paint a picture of one man’s life that was seemingly ordinary but became rather extraordinary by being told as a story to millions of people, whilst touching on some issues facing the world at large in a creative way.

I’m not a journalist, so ethically speaking I’ve never had to face the questions that Brian Reed no doubt asked himself. At one point he justifies exposing some ‘off the record’ comments of John B.’s by noting that he was an atheist and therefore did not believe in the existence of an afterlife, so since he’s dead talking about these matters wouldn’t have an effect on him. Personally, I think you should keep your word to people, even dead people.

Overall, I think S-Town was a great piece of storytelling, but I suppose what I wanted to get across was the importance of remembering that this wasn’t just a story – this was a real person, who experienced real pain, enough pain to take his own life. And maybe that’s what Brian Reed wanted too, for that loss to mean something, to have an impact, and I think it’s fair to say he’s achieved that.

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